Keble’s architecture was always intended to make a statement.
Butterfield himself claimed that he ‘had a mission to give dignity to brick’
In choosing William Butterfield (1814-1900) as their architect the founders were opting for a man with a proven track record as an exponent of the Gothic style (notably through his work at All Saints St Margaret Street, 1849) as well as High Anglican principles. Butterfield’s choice of brick was not just for reasons of economy, but also owed something to ideological and aesthetic principles. Butterfield himself claimed that he ‘had a mission to give dignity to brick’; the leading Anglo-Catholic Dr Pusey saw the College as a ‘broadside of Christianity against the [University] Museum’ across the road. In the buildings at Keble Butterfield displayed his characteristic penchant for polychromatic brickwork (not to everyone’s taste: a critic in the Saturday Review in 1876 complained that he had ‘imperilled the scholarlike sobriety which belongs to our characteristic collegiate architecture'). He broke with tradition too in arranging rooms off corridors rather than up staircases: the intention was to deter students from extravagant dining in suites of rooms in favour of communal dining in Hall. According to the architectural historian Geoffrey Tyack, ‘the interior of the Hall and Library show Butterfield’s genius for reinterpreting and transforming the various elements of Oxford’s traditional collegiate plan’. The Library arranged in a series of alcoves off a central aisle owes something to the layout of a medieval hospital, while the Hall, large enough at its inception, to accommodate all members of College, was rivalled in size only by Christ Church.
But the most striking element of Butterfield’s creation is the Chapel, financed by a gift of £40,000 from William Gibbs, who had employed Butterfield on his house at Tyntesfield (1862-4) now owned by the National Trust. The Chapel shows Butterfield’s ability to rework the Gothic into his own formula, especially in the treatment of wall surfaces. The interior is decorated with colourful tiles, mosaics, and stained glass. Although there was a powerful appeal to the senses, it was art in the service of faith, and the iconography of windows and mosaics testify to the mission to articulate the central Christian truths. Butterfield’s choice of Christ in Judgment for the mosaics over the altar led to a clash with Henry Liddon who would have preferred the Crucifixion as an aid to student piety. Backed by Gibbs Butterfield prevailed. Apart from the addition of the side-chapel built in 1890 to house The Light of the World, a development opposed by the architect, the Chapel remains largely as he left it. Keble’s buildings stirred controversy at the time, Gerard Manley Hopkins doubting that ‘the present generation will very much admire it', the buildings have in more recent years gained much wider appreciation.
To find out more about Keble’s architecture, read G. Tyack and M. Szurko (eds.), William Butterfield and Keble College (2002), available on request from the porters’ lodge, price £5.00 plus £1.00 postage and packaging.
Read more about William Butterfield on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website.